OODA, Adaptation, and Rigid Response Patterns

To flourish and grow in the many-sided uncertain, and ever-changing world that surrounds us suggests that we must make intuitive within ourselves those many practices we need to meet the exigencies of that world.  —John R. Boyd, A Discourse on Winning & Losing

Nature teaches us that all Actions have results. Therefore, to have the best life you can have, it is imperative that you Act wisely. Your life is a result of your Actions, interacting in a complex flow with everything else like other humans, genetics, cultural traditions, the environment, family, information, etc.

Nature rewards adaptation to the existing conditions. Creatures (including people) who can adapt to current conditions will survive; those that cannot adapt will decline and perish.

To adapt to current conditions, we have to be able to perceive current conditions clearly. To perceive clearly, our focus must be in the best place for the conditions we are experiencing.

For example– I am focusing mostly internally as I write this. Conditions are great for an internal focus. I am in a locked building, safe from predators and I have no conflicting needs or appointments. I am content, comfortable, and safe. Focusing internally is a fine thing to do given the context I am experiencing this moment.

It probably would not be safe if I was very internally focused while driving a car in the context of fast, heavy traffic. My attention might get so lost in my intellectual processes that I wouldn’t be able to see traffic changing- I might rear end someone or do something else ‘stupid’.

It is hard to adapt to changing traffic conditions when the attention is not on the traffic conditions. This is why talking on a cell phone while driving is so dangerous. When we get wrapped up in the conversation, we lose some awareness of our external environment.

On the other hand, if I were writing an essay exam in school, successful adaptation would probably require that my focus be on my thoughts about the essay and on the actual writing of the essay. If I were to get distracted by looking out the window for too long, I might fail my exam.

Point– Successful adaptation requires the ability to focus, and to shift our focus wisely. To Act skillfully requires that we attend to and act on whatever is most relevant in the context of that specific moment.

How do we determine what is most relevant in the moment from all the Observations streaming into us in any given moment?

There is no recipe. There is no static answer that is always going to be right. The answer to this question depends on everything that has ever happened to you interacting within the context of the moment. How human minds determine relevancy, or makes sense of the world, is incredibly complex. However, despite the complexity of the Orientation process, you can improve greatly in this area.

Orientation is the name of the process in the OODA loop where the relevancy and meaning of Observations are deduced; i.e., we “make sense “of our experience.  We take in raw data, i.e., Observations, and process that data which results in our Orientation. So, simply, we perceive something and then we figure out what it means to us. We next figure out what to do.

Experience (learning) strongly impacts how we make sense out of our Observations in the Orientation process.  Remember that survival requires successful adaptation, which requires clear Observations, followed by wise Orientation and skillful Decision and Action.

Your Orientation process determines what Decision processes and Action processes will follow. Your life is a result of your Actions. If you do not find your life to be satisfactory, your Actions are not getting you the results you want.

Frames of meaning arise during Orientation as a response to Observations. These frames are analyzed rapidly and the results flow into the Decision and Action process. Surviving on your own terms is the mark of successful adaptation. Actions thus need to enhance your adaptation to your environment.

Problems arise when your OODA loop processes result in maladaptive actions, actions that don’t move you toward surviving on your terms. If you grew up on Mars and were beamed down to Earth to New York City, you might not understand that you should not step in front of a speeding automobile. That would be maladaptive. Most of us learn from such errors, unless the error kills us.

Correcting some maladaptive actions is thus sometimes simply a matter of increasing your knowledge or  skills, whether it be through education, practice, study, talking with others, etc.

There is another sort of maladaptive action that is much less obvious and much more insidious—we’ll call it a Rigid Response Pattern. Remember that old definition of insanity? “Insanity is doing the same thing (that doesn’t ever work) over and over again and expecting different results each time.” That’s a rigid response pattern.

Let’s say you are buying a soda from a vending machine—you put your money in, push the selection button, and nothing comes out. At that point most of us will push the button a few more times and maybe push another button or two to see if we can get any soda from the machine.  Still, nothing comes out. At this point some of us will walk away, some of us might put more money into the same machine and try again, and some of us might try some tactics like pounding on the machine, tilting it, shaking it, cursing. But, if we are sane,  we will eventually walk away.

Most of us would agree that it would be really crazy to put our money in, push the button, get nothing out, and stand there for hours and hours pushing the button waiting for our soda. Maybe we stay there all night, pushing the button, waiting for our soda. That would be a rigid response pattern.

We are doing something that doesn’t work— it is a maladaptive action—but we keep doing it. It looks crazy to other people who aren’t inside your head.

Getting ripped of by a soda machine is not that big a deal to most of us most of the time. But losing on the football field—now that’s serious! In high school I played on a really good team that eventually won the state championship my senior year- it doesn’t get much better than that for a high school kid who loves football.

Somewhere in the middle of the season we played another really good team that was undefeated, the Russell Wildcats. They had a fierce defense—no one had scored any points against them all year. They were ranked higher than us in the newspaper polls and most people predicted that they would beat us.

Early in the game we were having some modest success running off tackle- we kept getting 4-5 yards. It wasn’t flashy or impressive, but it worked almost every time.  We scored, and later we got close enough to kick a field goal. We ended up beating the Wildcats 10-8.

On Monday when we went over the game films, our coach told us that we had run off tackle almost 75% of our plays! That’s generally a bad idea because most teams will load up their defense to stop a specific play. Most game plans mix up the play selection, trying to keep the other team guessing. However, we kept running that same off tackle play because the Wildcats never changed their defense, thus they never adapted to it.

Why didn’t they change? I talked with one of their players, Bobby, a few months later. Bobby said that the Wildcat’s coach was unwilling to change their defensive strategy because, the coach said “that defense of ours should stop them!”  He was so attached to his frames that he could not believe that his team wasn’t stopping us. He kept thinking it would eventually work. He was unable to adjust to the reality on the field.

Our coach changed his game plan when he saw that the Wildcats were not adjusting their defense to stop our off-tackle play. Our coach adapted- we won. The Wildcat’s coach couldn’t adapt to the reality on the field- they lost. That’s a serious consequence for having a rigid response pattern, at least, it is serious to competitive athletes.

What happens if you have rigid response patterns in your relationships? You will behave in ways that do not work- basically you do not effectively adapt to the relationship environment.

For example: Let’s say that every time you visit your parents you are nice, polite, and deferential—a good child. And, every time you visit your parents they insult you, humiliate you, shame you, try to control you—visiting them is torture! But, you keep going back, and every time you visit you are nice, polite, and deferential, and you are so upset when they abuse you again.

Something in your orientation process is out of alignment. Your inner frames of meaning that arise at a visit with your parents are telling you to be nice, and being nice is getting you hurt every time. And about now you will start wailing “But I’m so nice—they shouldn’t treat me that way!!”

Well, maybe they shouldn’t treat you that way, but they obviously do treat you that way. It is time to get your head straight so you can change your behavior to something that is more adaptive to what is actually happening.

This is the point at which deconstructing your Orientation process comes into play. No matter what you want, or expect, or think is “right”, your behavior with your parents is maladaptive— you are not surviving on your terms.

Obviously somewhere in your life a set of frames of meaning got created that are dictating how you should interact with your parents and how they should, in return, treat you. “Good girls should act nice and should respect and defer to their parents at all times” or something like that. And there may be some frame like “If you act right, others will treat you right—if you don’t act right, you will get punished, or they might even abandon you”.

In the situation with the parents described above, doing the same thing will probably keep getting you the same results, over and over. To change the results, you will have to change the dysfunctional dance that you are engaged in with your parents. You have to change what you do. To change your actions, you have to change your Orientation process.

The Wildcat’s coach didn’t adapt and they lost. He believed in his frames so much he could not see the reality as it unfolded on the field. Likewse, if you never adapt to reality with your parents, you will continue to get emotionally pummeled whenever you visit.

Adapt and thrive, fail to adapt and die.

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